After a long drive into the mountains we arrived at a small house with cars parked along the side of the road. As we made our way into the yard we saw young men playing football (soccer), while older women sat talking under tall poplar trees trying to stay out of the sun. There was not a hint of a breeze.
We were invited inside the one room house to change into our casual clothes in the bathroom but when we went through the door we were immediately arrested by the air conditioned interior and the couch along the wall. We sat and waited our turn as we watched six Spanish girls chop tomatoes, lettuce and cilantro. We regretted to hear that the bathroom was now free, we could change our clothing and go out under the roof or the trees with the other forty hot, sweating people. Being the oldest people in the crowd allowed us few special privileges.
Outside the unfinished, three sided building was empty except for two guys playing ping pong and three others standing around a grill turning mounds of meat. I wasn’t surprised to see our guests and my Brazilian friend from Portugal giving a hand. Brazilians, barbecue and meat are synonymous. After what seemed like a very long time due to the heat and the lack of shade an incredible sit down meal was laid out for about forty or more people. We all had more than we could eat and frankly, some of the food had to go home with folks as leftovers. Bacon chunks and rice found its way to the table and almost always does when Spanish or Brazilians are prepping the food.
It was a wonderful time of fellowship and since I didn’t know everyone attending I took up a conversation with five people who were apparently unbelievers but I didn’t know so they all got plan “A” as I explained the purpose of apologetics by presenting several examples which caught their attention. For one thing, I talked about it means to have a Christian worldview and what it means to be human (Imago Dei) and the meaning of the fall using the text, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Indirectly many of my comments were affirmed though as it often happens, once the conversation gets too deep some retreat into obvious but utter silence.
In reality though, this is the most effective method for doing evangelism in a gospel resistant culture like Italy. The party model where Christians having a good time are put together with non-believers is most convincing since people can see the gospel before they ever hear it. The chances that any of these unchurched friends will find themselves in an evangelical church anytime soon are beyond remote unless they have prior positive exposure to the message or messenger(s).
Perhaps some of you wonder why I go to this trouble of writing 36 blogs over a period of seven weeks? There are a variety of reasons but probably the most important might be this, it is a way of document my missionary journey. I doubt if anyone will care once I am dead and gone but for me it is quite interesting to have this history now documented over eight years or more in some 470 small vignettes likely been missing from my bed for at least 1,300 nights over the last thirteen years so this all stretches into quite a story for a boy from small town Oklahoma and Kansas.
Gruppo Cristiano Latino Americano
I wound up the seven weeks on the road in my home church in Europe where I have such old and good friends. This morning we had an attendance of around one hundred twenty or so in the sanctuary, so altogether, there were probably 150 in attendance when the children are added.
This church has pretty much what it needs from parking to sanctuary and classroom space. It also has the advantage of good music and leadership. I mostly just sit back and enjoy it all until it comes my turn.
Today, I preached a message I have been carrying with me (something I think folks need to hear), “Disappointment with God.” What’s the meaning of disappointment? What does God have in mind by putting his people through it?
It all went well and I gave no real altar call but it almost always turns out people came for prayer for various needs and this morning two couples who happened to attend for the first time came with the intention of serving God in this church. There were several others. I love the openness of Latin people. It is so difficult to move a comfortable American by any appeal.
Since I was to be picked up in Parma at four for a new church street project outreach in Fidenza we went back to Parma in time for a short rest and getting picked up by Francesco. Off we went.
It was a terribly hot in the afternoon without a breath of air when we arrived in Fidenza at about five-thirty. We parked and walked the four blocks to the city center where there was a festival. In Italy almost anything that features a balloon is called a feste.
It wasn’t hard to find our outreach team. There were about fifteen young people from various nations gathered in a loose circle enthusiastically singing to the sound of a strummed guitar and another fellow beating on something that served as a drum.
Almost ten years ago I made about three subsequent visits to Portugal where I connected with Brazilian, Free Methodist missionaries to Portugal, Cindi and Eduardo. They had now come from Lisbon, Portugal to Italy and Parma, renewed acquaintance and be introduced to the Gruppo Cristiano Latino Americano leadership. Two new Brazilian workers who feel called to Italy, Moses and his wife, Jacione have been in Portugal establishing EU residency for this very purpose. Ten years haven’t seemed to make much difference in Cindi and Eduardo and to me they looked the same as when I left them. They also brought along another pastor, Cida whom I had met but frankly, hadn’t come to know because of the limitation of language for both me and her.
After so many years we enjoyed reconnecting and promised to talk more on Sunday when we would have more time to socialize but for now we had to go to a service where I would preach.
The evening was shared by a band from Brecia that had come down to help. Even in the heat, they certainly held the attention of the audience with lively music interspersed with testimony and videos.
Later the same day we made a drive of about twenty minutes to the home of the Kelleys’, missionaries from Texas with the Southern Baptists International Missions Board. They come from Texas and have been in this area of Slovenia for eleven years, spending the first seven in Siberia. Now fully settled and mostly integrated into the community they are involved in a variety of mission activities. You can find Joe and Kim on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TheGreatXchange/info He describes his invitational sports ministry in the following way, “We facilitate spiritually and physically challenging and eternally rewarding volunteer mission experiences that result in a lifestyle of cross-cultural disciple making and international church planting.”
A more specific explanation can be found at their website http://sloveniagreatexchange.com/
Joe showed us his bicycle shed where he has ten or more first class mountain bikes hanging from the rafter. Then in other places you find evidences of mountain climbing, kyacking, rafting and so forth.
So how does it work?
Joe and Kim do their passion and I am always of the opinion that if we do what we are wired for, we are less likely to burn out. These Texans are avid outdoors people so they invite volunteers who share the same passion to join them in sharing the gospel through acts of service and the printed word as they encounter villagers, and others in camp grounds or along the road. More often teams of seven Christians, primarily from the United States, come to Slovenia to join Joe in a variety of sports activities which includes biking through the Alps, hiking, mountain climbing or shooting the rapids.
They are a lovely couple and because I grew up in their “neck of the woods” we had an immediate affinity. If you have an interest in this sort of experience or mission I suggest you contact them and give this a week of your time. I doubt if you will be disappointed. This is a very beautiful and inspiring corner of the world that desperately needs the gospel.
Later we took a drive to visit a few of the friends of Andrej and Lydja’s ministry. At this point Andrej wisely doesn’t intend to start a “church” and for good reason. This would be considered suspiciously and viewed as competitive with the Parish church. AFTER ALL, THE REFORMATION WAS STOPPED IN IT’S ADVANCE RIGHT HERE. Protestant and evangelical faith here is the doctrine of hell. He doesn’t need to contend with undue attention and criticism so he prefers to simply create a community of people who want to learn the Bible together and this approach has caused people to drive some distance to hear him teach on Friday nights.
In this group that met on Friday night were two interesting attenders I said that I would like to meet. The first of these were Maja and her father, Branko who was an atheist for most of his life. Though she didn’t give the details, it appeared that Maja was a bit of a party girl but finally came up empty and while tutoring a village lady in mathematics who inquired about her spiritual condition, she, in time, called upon the name of the Lord.
Maja doesn’t seem to be intimidated by much so she shared the gospel with many. Her family members were resistant but now some of them have also embraced Jesus alone for their eternity. It turned out that her dad who lived under the same roof was the most difficult but eventually surrendered to Jesus as well. Branko is now as soft as putty and whenever he mentioned his conversion or the name of Jesus, his eyes filled with tears and he has to look away. This strong, physical Yugoslav is no push over (most men in this region are real men) but now rushes to his bedside to retrieve his crumpled and well-worn prayer list of some thirty or more names.
As most of you know, I am not an advocate of a hard, fatalistic, Reform sovereignty but when one finds any believer here, it is always “a brand plucked from the fire.” The stories are always so amazing that one must admit to the sovereign reach of God. It is so very dark. The box is sealed so tightly, there is so little light but one word can punch a hole in the box and the truth is, the box is no longer pitch dark at all. The light may be dim for years until another hole comes and more light floods in but finally the entire, once dark box, is flooded with light. Even after a person is “converted” there is much work to be done. Andrej knows that the key is the word of God and that “the entrance of His word gives light.”
My host family are the Zelenaks who serve with ACCI in this region of Slovenia. It is my guess that in this area there would not be more than one-hundred Bible Christians among approximately 200,000 Italians and Slovenes so they have their work cut out for them. This is where it was determined the Reformation would advance no farther and it didn’t. Even today, five-hundred years later, protestant convictions are considered and called heresy. To become a Bible Christian here is to lose your family and reputation.
I was happy to come this Alpine area to see the beautiful mountains, villages, rivers and lakes. It is truly a beautiful place to live. I am always impressed with our missionaries who make the hard choices and arranging their lives in such a way as to survive on almost nothing.
Andrej and Lydja went out of their way to show me a good time. Lydja cooked up a chicken lunch that was very similar to Chicken Parmesan but with a Slovenian twist and along with the french fries and fresh salad, I had a real home cooked meal. This was a nice break from hotel, street and restaurant food.
After lunch we all crowed into their Fiat Punto and they took me to see the famous Soce River Park where we hiked for about a mile to see what National Geographic Magazine calls one of “Ten Must See’s in 2014.” I had no idea of what to expect until I came around the corner of the dark, rock walled canyon to see the light bursting through from above and an amazing waterfall of bright turquoise pouring into an cerulean pool. It was an amazing and worthwhile trek. Don’t go there without seeing it.
I was quite happy to see the room fill in some and by the advertised time of 7:30. the crowd was somewhat respectable considering most people consider any church other than Catholic a “sect” which actually means a cult and something to be avoided. Events of this nature are most often viewed suspiciously and shunned by the general society at large. Even though Andrej is a hometown boy and known by almost everyone, no one knows quite what to make of him. So, before we ever begin the cards are stacked against us. Almost no one knows of or has ever heard the gospel so it is quite foreign to the ears of almost everyone and sounds to all like a strange doctrine.
Nevertheless, Andrej and Lydja keep smiling and inviting folks to their Bible studies and events. Tonight we have mustered about twenty locals, some driving from as far away as one hour. Altogether, counting our team we have an audience of perhaps thirty.
The music starts with Andrej on guitar, Mateja on piano and Polona helping with vocals. The crowd does their best to sing and after four or five choruses I am introduced as the special speaker. With translation I spoke almost an hour on “Who Is the Real Jesus?” At first the congregation seemed impossible to connect with but soon with text opened up and lots of story telling, I had them listening and interacting. At the conclusion I offered Jesus with one person responding. To some of my readers, this may seem like nothing but you have no idea what a decision like this will cost a person. It is a huge undertaking and people must count the cost. Several others talked with me following the concluding prayer and wanted counsel and prayer.
During my message one little girl of about eight years listened to every word and I could tell that she understood in English. Following the meeting I enjoyed meeting her mom, dad and sister. We had a great deal in common since the Kelley’s come as Southern Baptist missionaries from Texas, a denomination and state I know well.